TIME Military

U.S. Troops Now Under ‘Frequent’ Attack at Iraqi Base

U.S. Marines at Al Asad Air Base in Iraqís Anbar Province.
U.S. Marines at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq's Anbar province, Dec. 28, 2014. Ayman Oghanna—The New York Times—Redux

ISIS lobs `sporadic' rounds at base where Americans are training Iraqis

Last month, the Pentagon declared there were “no reports” of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria firing on U.S. troops stationed at Iraq’s huge al-Asad base. This month, the Pentagon acknowledged Monday, ISIS has been routinely lobbing “completely ineffective” rounds at the U.S. troops training Iraqi forces at the base north of Baghdad.

Who knows what next month will bring?

Firing crude rockets and mortar rounds is an inexact science, to be sure, but it’s basically like shooting at fish in a barrel. Yes, the fish are very small—and the barrel very big (the base is 25 square miles)—but no military force likes to be pinned down by mortar and rocket barrages. With every incoming round, the chances go up that someone on the base is going to be wounded, or worse.

This is President Obama’s dilemma: he has declared there will be no U.S. combat boots on the ground inside Iraq, yet he has dispatched American soldiers to a base with at least a smattering of enemy forces around it. If ISIS gets lucky—and wounds or kills U.S. troops—the political pressure on Obama to escalate will be intense.

Since Christmas, the U.S. and its allies have launched air strikes at ISIS targets near al Asad on five days, including a pair Monday that “struck two [ISIS] tactical units and destroyed three [ISIS] vehicles,” according to a Pentagon release.

But air power is a tough way to take out shoot-and-scoot mortar teams. It takes ISIS fighters only moments to set up and fire several rounds, before likely returning to dwellings shared with civilians, which U.S. policy bars attacking. Ground units, with the capability to gather intelligence before busting down doors and apprehending perpetrators, are a far more effective weapon against such attacks.

al Asad air base was the second-biggest U.S. base in Iraq during the 2003-11 Iraq war. About 100 miles west of Baghdad in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, the base sits on the Syrian Desert. About 320 U.S. troops are now there, earning hazardous-duty pay while training Iraq’s 7th Infantry Division to take on ISIS. There are just over 2,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, and Obama has authorized the dispatch of 1,000 more.

There have been grim reports from the region in recent weeks. The BBC reported Dec. 19 that the base “has been encircled by militants from Islamic State (IS).” Four days later, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a branch of the U.S. government, reported that Iraqi military forces and tribal fighters, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, had thwarted an ISIS effort to overrun the base.

“al Asad air base has received some indirect fire in the last week or so, couple of weeks,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told CNN Monday. “It happens frequently, but it’s not like multiple attacks every single day.” The Pentagon, he says, calls it “unguided— it’s just random, sporadic, you might get one, one day, and three the next day. It’s done no damage, it has hurt nobody.”

While that may be true in a physical sense, there is a psychological cost that comes with being under persistent fire. It’s a signal that you’re vulnerable, and that your foes retain at least some initiative that could prove deadly for you or your comrades.

“It’s not too bad,” Marine Corporal Zak Taylor recently told NPR of his deployment to the base. “You kind of get used to everything.” He paused. “Not the rockets—that’s definitely one thing we’ll never get used to.”

 

US army soldiers board a plane to begin
U.S. troops leave al Asad air base in November 2011 heading for home. ALI AL-SAADI / AFP / Getty Images

 

TIME Syria

More Than 76,000 Killed in Syria in 2014, Making it the Deadliest Year Yet

Residents look for belongings amid debris of a collapsed building in Aleppo
Residents look for belongings amid debris of a collapsed building in Aleppo December 31, 2014. Hamid Khatib—Reuters

Much of the violence has been caused by the advance of ISIS and other militant groups

More than 76,000 people were killed in Syria’s civil war in 2014, including thousands of children, making it the deadliest year yet, activists say.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday it has recorded 17,790 civilian deaths, 3,501 being children.

The monitoring group said more than 200,000 people have died since the conflict began in 2011, when anti-regime protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime descended into bloody conflict after a government crackdown.

More than 15,000 rebel fighters were also killed in Iraq in 2014, as were 17,000 militants from groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, making the worst nationwide death toll since 2007, reports the BBC.

Much of last year’s bloodshed comes as a result of ISIS and other militant groups advancing into Syria and Iraq.

TIME Military

The True Cost of the Afghanistan War May Surprise You

General Motors Corp. Hummer vehicles sit on display at Humme
A row of Hummers for sale in 2009 at a Michigan dealer. Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Calculating the cost of a war is a little like finding the true cost of a car

Amid the revelry, did you notice that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ended New Year’s Eve at midnight? Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are officially over—or merely “paused” as many in the Pentagon believe—it’s a fair time to check the meter to see how much these two conflicts cost the nation.

First rule: there are as many ways to measure the cost of a war as there are to measure the cost of a car.

Suppose, for example, you were a Pentagon war planner with a hankering for a GM Hummer back in 2009 when both wars were rumbling along. That’s the nifty, if not nimble, civilian variation of the U.S. military’s High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee, for short).

A quick check of Edmunds.com’s True Cost to Own calculator (after plugging in one of the Pentagon’s six Zip Codes) shows you’d pay the dealer $35,752 for the behemoth. But its true cost to own—depreciation, financing, fuel, insurance etc.—would more than double, to $78,616, over five years of ownership.

The analogy’s not precise, but it’s close enough to show that paying for wars doesn’t end when the fighting does. (And not only then: the nation won’t be paying for these wars only over the next five years, but for more than a generation). And while you can no longer buy a new Hummer, there’s always a new war sitting on out the lot, waiting to be waged. But it’s critical to be aware of its total cost.

The Congressional Research Service, for example, just fired up its calculators and concluded that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost U.S. taxpayers $1.6 trillion. That’s a fine figure, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough, and anyone who cites it as the conflicts’ cost is more Hummer salesman than steward of taxpayer funds.

Congressional Research Service via Federation of American Scientists

A truer measure of the wars’ total costs pegs them at between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. This fuller accounting includes “long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs,” Harvard economist Linda Bilmes calculated in 2013.

The Pentagon and its civilian overseers don’t like to talk about war costs, either before or after the shooting. That’s because a high price tag beforehand acts as an economic brake, making war—assuming that’s the goal—less likely. The nation may no longer draft soldiers, but when it wages war it has to draft dollars (borrowed or otherwise). Far better to try to sell a war with a low-cost estimate to mute possible public opposition.

And after the war—especially when victory is MIA—toting up the bottom line is just too depressing.

There are downsides to straying from such dogma. The George W. Bush Administration, for example, forced Lawrence Lindsey to resign as head of its National Economic Council shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, after he said the cost of a war with Iraq might reach $200 billion. A month later, just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the war’s total cost would be “something under $50 billion.” And the U.S., he added, would share that bill with its allies.

The new CRS report says the war in Iraq ended up costing $814.6 billion. Afghanistan has cost $685.6 billion.

Congressional Research Service via Federation of American Scientists

Bilmes, in her 2013 study, said the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been “the most expensive wars in U.S. history.” That, of course, was before the U.S. entered its third Iraq war in August, and before the U.S. decided to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2016.

But just because those U.S. troops in Afghanistan no longer have a combat mission doesn’t mean they’re a bargain: the CRS report says the cost of keeping a single American soldier there this year is an eye-watering $3.9 million.

TIME Iraq

Civilian Deaths in Iraq Spiked Sharply in 2014

Double the year before

The number of civilians killed in Iraq doubled in 2014 from 2013, according to a new report out Thursday.

The public database project Iraq Body Count recorded 17,049 civilian deaths in Iraq in 2014, approximately double its tally in 2013 (9,743), which itself had doubled from the year prior (there were 4,622 civilian deaths in 2012). IBC, which has been recording civilian deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the American and British invasion of the country 12 years ago, attributed the growing violence on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

The sharp rise in civilian deaths makes 2014 the third worst year for civilians over the entire 12 years of the conflict, after the bloodiest years of the Iraq War in 2006 and 2007.

TIME Syria

ISIS Executed Almost 2,000 People in Syria Over the Past Six Months

Google Top Searches of 2014 List
In this June 16, 2014, file photo, supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria chant slogans as they carry the group's flags in Mosul, Iraq STR—AP

The great majority of them were civilians

ISIS executed 1,878 people in Syria over the past six months, including 120 of its own members, a U.K.-based Syrian human-rights group said on Sunday.

Most of the people killed by the Islamist terrorist group were civilians, including 930 members of a Sunni Muslim tribe from eastern Syria, Reuters reports, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

All but four of those executed within ISIS’s own ranks were fighters trying to leave and go back home.

ISIS, which has declared a caliphate across a broad swath of Syria and Iraq, and regards breaches of strict Islamic law as punishable by death, frequently releases videos of its executions, including the killings of two U.S. journalists and three aid workers from the U.S. and Britain.

[Reuters]

TIME Iraq

Iraqi Police: Coalition Airstrikes Kill ISIS Governor of Mosul

Hassan Saeed Al-Jabouri is the second ISIS-appointed governor to be killed in the extremist stronghold in December

Coalition airstrikes killed the latest Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)-appointed governor of Mosul on Thursday, according to Iraqi police.

Hassan Saeed Al-Jabouri, known as Abu Taluut, is the second ISIS governor of Mosul to be killed in December, CNN reports.

According to Maj. Gen. Watheq Al-Hamdani, the Iraqi police commander leading the government’s efforts to retake Mosul, Jabouri was killed 29 km south of the city in the village of Qayyara. He had been in office less than 25 days.

Mosul has been a stronghold for ISIS fighters since they took the city from Iraqi forces earlier this year. The Pentagon says they will move to retake the city beginning in January.

[CNN]

TIME faith

Pope Francis Singles Out Iraq and Syria in Christmas Prayer for Peace

VATICAN-POPE-URBI ORBI-CHRISTMAS
Pope Francis gives his traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on Dec. 25, 2014 Osservatore Romano/AFP/Getty Images

"There are so many tears this Christmas"

Pope Francis used his Christmas address at the Vatican to pray for peace for those suffering through conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine and Africa.

Speaking to thousands amassed below his perch on St. Peter’s Basilica, USA Today reports, he singled out residents and refugees of Iraq and Syria “who for too long now suffer the effects of ongoing conflict and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution.” He also mentioned the families of the children killed in the recent school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan.

“There are so many tears this Christmas,” he said, later adding: “May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world.”

Other restive areas noted by the Pope included Central African Republic, Nigeria and South Sudan.

The annual address came the day after he placed a satellite phone call to an Iraqi refugee camp, informing displaced families that they were in his thoughts this holiday season.

“Dear brothers, I am close to you, very close to you in my heart,” the Pope said to refugees outside the Kurdish city of Erbil, according to AFP.

Many of the refugees had fled a campaign of ethnic cleansing waged by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in the northwestern provinces of the country. The Pope condemned ISIS, accusing its members of carrying out attacks against “innocent children, children who have died, exploited children.”

“I am thinking, too, about grandparents, about the older people who have lived their lives, and who must now bear this cross,” he said, hours before he led midnight mass at the Vatican.

[USA Today]

TIME Military

Jordanian Pilot Captured by ISIS Militants

Jordan pilot captured
A still image released by the Islamic State on Dec. 24, 2014 purportedly shows a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS fighters after they shot down a warplane from the US-led coalition with an anti-aircraft missile near Raqqa city. EPA

First allied troop captured in the four-month war against militants

The second-worst fear of U.S. commanders came true Wednesday, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria captured a Jordanian pilot attacking ISIS targets in northeastern Syria.

It could only have been worse, from the U.S. perspective, if the pilot had been American, falling into a barbarous enemy’s hands on Christmas Eve. It marked the first capture of an allied fighter in the four-month war against ISIS.

Jordan acknowledged their pilot had been captured near ISIS’s self-declared capital city of Raqqa. “Jordan holds the group (IS) and its supporters responsible for the safety of the pilot and his life,” a statement from the Jordanian army read on state television said. It did not specify whether the plane had crashed or been shot down, as ISIS has claimed.

The family of pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh publicly sought his release. “Please send him back to us,” his brother, Jawad, told CNN. “He is just a soldier who is following orders and has no authority.”

ISIS posted two photographs allegedly showing the capture. In one, a man labeled as the pilot is seen being pulled by militants from a lake, soaking wet and clad only in a white shirt. A second shows him surrounded by militants, some of them masked.

“A Jordanian F-16 aircraft crashed in the vicinity of the northern Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah on Wednesday and the pilot has been taken captive by ISIL forces,” U.S. Central Command said several hours after the plane went down. “Evidence clearly indicates that [ISIS] did not down the aircraft as the terrorist organization is claiming.”

An earlier statement issued by the allies said that an air strike had been conducted against a “weapons stockpile” near Raqqa. “All aircraft returned to base safely,” it added. Twenty-two minutes later it issued what it called a “corrected” statement with that sentence gone.

READ MORE The First Western Journalist to Interview ISIS Is Home With a Terrifying Message

The chance of a pilot being shot down and captured has been a major concern of U.S. war planners. That’s why the Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopters—flying low and slow—haven’t seen much action. High-and-fast flying fixed-wing aircraft are much less vulnerable to ground fire.

But even the world’s best warplanes can be shot down with what pilots call a “golden BB” that hits the plane in the right spot. F-16 and F-117 fighters were shot down over Yugoslavia in Balkan wars of the 1990s. Both pilots were rescued. An RPG downed a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan in 2011, killing all 38 aboard, including 25 SEALs and other special-ops troops.

Repeated flights over those trying to shoot you down increase the chances those shooting from the ground will eventually succeed. Since the U.S. and its allies began stepped-up bombing runs against ISIS targets Sept. 23, they have flown 10,000 sorties. About one of every four has been a non-U.S. flight.

As of Dec. 15, the 11 allies flying such missions have accounted for 14% of 1,287 air-strike missions, the most dangerous kind. In addition to the U.S., allies attacking targets in Iraq are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have joined the U.S. in bombing runs against targets inside Syria.

READ MORE ISIS’s Harrowing Sexual Violence Toward Yezidi Women Revealed

al-Kasasbeh’s fate is grim. The jihadist group holding him has beheaded non-military Westerners for simply being Westerners. Pentagon officials fear he could be used for propaganda purposes, as several of the murdered Westerners were. If the allies claim he is a prisoner of war—and needs to be treated humanely, under the Geneva Accords—that suggests they recognize ISIS as a legitimate state, something they don’t want to do.

The pilot’s Facebook page was filling up with prayers from friends shortly after news broke of the shoot down. U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin, chief of Centcom, said the U.S. would “support efforts to ensure his safe recovery, and will not tolerate [ISIS’s] attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes.”

It’s a safe bet the U.S. will do all it can to help Jordan rescue him, although such missions have only a slim chance of success.

The topic came up at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in September. “Will U.S. forces be prepared to provide combat search and rescue if a pilot gets shot down, and will they put boots on the ground to make that rescue successful?” Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., asked Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dempsey’s answer: “Yes.”

Inhofe was referring to a U.S. pilot, but that caveat seems moot now.

TIME Iraq

The First Western Journalist to Interview ISIS Is Home With a Terrifying Message

What he found in Mosul doesn't bode well

Jürgen Todenhöfer, the first Western journalist to be granted access to territories controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), has returned with a warning: the terrorist group is “much stronger and much more dangerous” than its adversaries understand.

The veteran German writer and journalist is back in his home state after traveling through ISIS territories, just months after the extremist group began killing captive foreign workers and journalists. In Todenhöfer’s first interviews about the trip with German-language media, translated by the U.K. Independent, he presents ISIS as having achieved its namesake goal: an Islamic State — or rather, a collection of claimed lands hewed together by an audacious, baffling zealotry that will challenge efforts to beat the group.

READ MORE Kurdish Fighters Regain Territory from ISIS in Most Successful Offensive Yet

Todenhöfer, 74, a high-profile reporter and antiwar activist, traveled to ISIS-held Mosul, in northern Iraq, after seven months of negotiations with the group’s leaders.

In Mosul, Todenhöfer found an “almost ecstatic enthusiasm” for the jihadist group that is unlike anything he had seen “in any other war zone,” he tells the German press. Each day, Todenhöfer says, hundreds of new recruits arrive to pledge themselves to the group’s mission, or what he calls the “largest religious cleansing strategy that has ever been planned in human history.”

Beyond the challenge of beating ISIS’s psychological pull on its followers, the U.S. and its allies will also confront the problem that the group’s some 5,000 fighters in Mosul sleep in barracks all around the Iraqi city, such that attackers “would have to reduce the whole of Mosul to ruins” to rid it of ISIS, says Todenhöfer.

He adds: “With every bomb that is dropped and hits a civilian, the number of terrorists increases.”

[The Independent]

TIME Military

Taking the Crisis Out of ISIS

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
An F-18 leaves it carrier for a bombing run against ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

Pentagon reports some good news from the front

After four months of stalemate in the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the U.S. military finally expressed measured optimism Thursday over the course of the campaign.

“We’re seeing initial successes in this fight,” Army Lieut. General James Terry told reporters at the Pentagon. “My assessment is that Daesh has been halted in transitioning to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have.”

The Pentagon has begun referring to ISIS—which is also know as ISIL, for the Islamic State in the Levant—as Daesh, after prodding from its allies.

In Arabic, Daesh and ISIL sound alike, although “daesh” literally means “to crush underneath the foot,” Terry said. “Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate, and they feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

ISIS forces still control roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. Regaining major territory in both nations won’t be possible until local ground forces can be assembled and trained to take the fight to the Islamic militants in the major cities they now hold. The launch of any such single counter-offensive is months away, and will take years to drive ISIS from all the cities, Pentagon officials believe.

Later Thursday, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said air strikes over the last month have killed senior ISIS officials. “Since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple [ISIS] senior and mid-level leaders,” Rear Admiral John Kirby said. The Wall Street Journal reported that three senior leaders had been killed.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades [ISIS’s] ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Kirby added in a statement. The U.S. and its allies have conducted 1,361 air strikes since August, with 86% of those carried out by U.S. warplanes (the U.S. has carried out 97% of the strikes in Syria this month, Reuters reports).

The Pentagon statements didn’t occur in a vacuum. Last week, lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed ire at the slow pace of the war against ISIS. “Does the United States have some other strategic plan other than arming these [Syrian] folks that aren’t going to show up till 2016, dropping bombs, that are marginal whether they’ve been successful, and helping with military aid to some of these coalition countries?” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, asked Brett McGurk, the Obama Administration’s anti-ISIS envoy.

“It was designed,” McGurk said, “to be a long-term program.”

Read next: U.S. Kills 3 ISIS Leaders in Iraq Strikes, Officials Say

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